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On March 12, I attended a concert in the Foellinger Great Hall, which will probably be the last concert given there this spring. And a magnificent concert it was! The major work was the sprawling, overwhelming Symphony No. 13, “Babi Yar,” of Dimitri Shostakovich. This enormous work, more oratorio than symphony, involved four UIUC musical organizations, the UI Symphony Orchestra, Donald Schleicher, music director, the UI Chamber Singers and the UI Oratorio Society, Andrew Megill, director of choral activities, and the UI Varsity Men’s Glee Club, Barrington Coleman, conductor.

The concert opened with the massed strings of the UI Symphony giving a radiant reading of Ralph Vaughn Williams’ “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.” Before the Fantasia started, 12 members of the Chamber Singers sang, clearly and idiomatically, the 1567 setting of verses from Psalm 2 by Elizabethan composer Thomas Tallis (1505-1585), which Vaughan Williams used in his 1910 work. In the Fantasia which followed, the UI Symphony strings, under Schleicher’s clear direction, produced some of the loveliest massed string sounds I have heard this season or any season in the FGH.

Shostakovich’s 1962 Symphony No. 13 was involved in one of the fiercest cultural-political controversies of the post-Stalin Soviet Union. In September 1961, the famous poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko published the poem “Babi Yar” which was a denunciation of the Soviet authorities for their failure to erect a monument at Babi Yar, near Kiev, now Ukraine, in recognition of the slaughter of Russian Jews by the Nazis in 1941. The poem also attacked the continuing Anti-Semitism among the Russian people. In 1962, Shostakovich decided to set “Babi Yar” for chorus and orchestra, but then the composer moved on to include four more Yevtushenko poems on controversial topics. Then, the work, as his Symphony No. 13, despite official opposition, was premiered in December, 1962, and after a few performances, it then was, in effect, banned.

The all-male chorus, and the solo baritone, sang six pages of Yevtushenko’s poetry, in Russian, in this hour-long work. In this UIUC performance, the baritone solo part was sung, with excellent projection, and fine tonal delivery, by Ricardo Herrera, a Professor of Voice at UIUC. Herrera, as solo, and the large male chorus, largely singing in unison, went through a wide range of moods, from raging indignation, to rollicking scorn, as well as into deeper, more pathos-laden insights into the suffering of common people.

In the opening “Babi Yar” movement, the assembled forces projected Yevtushenko’s feelings of sympathy for and identification with the sufferings of Jews from ancient times down to the Holocaust. In the second “Humor” movement, the vocal forces sang about the indomitable force of satire as a weapon against tyranny.

The quieter section, “In the Store,” displayed Yevtushenko’s admiration for Russian women patiently waiting to buy food, and in the understated pathos of this music I found this to be the most moving portion of the work. The fourth movement, “Fears,” expressed the anxieties of Russians for whom the old fears of Stalinist repression were replaced by a new set of fears. This movement, along with the “Babi Yar” movement, provoked the Soviet regime’s negative reaction to this symphony. The final movement, “A Career,” extolled men like Galileo who stood by their beliefs whether their careers were destroyed or not. After all the poetic and musical outbursts, this work, with a sad little waltz theme, reached a final mood of cathartic contemplation.

This performance was a triumph for this student orchestra, for Ricardo Herrera, and the choral forces which took part. All concerned with this project should be proud of this splendid achievement. During the stormy, standing ovation, conductor Schleicher, and choral director Megill joined the performers in receiving this sign of appreciation from the audience.

All those performers were expecting to bring this work to Carnegie Hall in New York, but the certainty of that trip has melted in the reality of the cancellation of all concerts for the foreseeable future. But we can only hope that normal musical activities will eventually resume.

John Frayne hosts ‘Classics of the Phonograph’ on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the UI. Reach him at frayne@illinois.edu.